The USA in Iraq: Putting Out the Fire with Gasoline

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Surely, HIMARS will bring peace to Iraq

W.J. Astore

Today brings yet another announcement of more U.S. troops to Iraq.  This time 600 are being sent as logistics support, advisers, and enablers (that term, “enabler,” is fuzzy indeed: enabler of what?  More failure?).  That brings the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to more than 5200, but of course this figure seriously under-represents the American presence in the region.  Nowadays, most “troops” are provided by private contractors, and many of these are U.S. military veterans who discovered they could make a lot more money wearing mufti than in Uncle Sam’s uniforms.  At the same time, the U.S. continues to provide heavy-duty weaponry to the Iraqi military, including Apache attack helicopters and the HIMARS rocket system.  All of this is intended to help the Iraqi military retake the city of Mosul.

That the U.S. is yet again providing more troops as well as heavy weapons as “force multipliers” highlights the failure of U.S. military efforts to “stand up” an effective Iraqi military. The enemy, after all, has no Apache helicopters, no HIMARS system, and no U.S. advisers, although we certainly “enable” them with all the U.S. weaponry they’ve been able to capture or steal.  Despite a lack of U.S. military training and aid, ISIS and crew have proven to be remarkably resilient.  What gives?

Two years ago, I wrote an article at TomDispatch.com on “America’s Hollow Foreign Legions.”  Back then, I said this:

Military training, no matter how intensive, and weaponry, no matter how sophisticated and powerful, is no substitute for belief in a cause.  Such belief nurtures cohesion and feeds fighting spirit.  ISIS has fought with conviction.  The expensively trained and equipped Iraqi army hasn’t.  The latter lacks a compelling cause held in common.  This is not to suggest that ISIS has a cause that’s pure or just. Indeed, it appears to be a complex mélange of religious fundamentalism, sectarian revenge, political ambition, and old-fashioned opportunism (including loot, plain and simple). But so far the combination has proven compelling to its fighters, while Iraq’s security forces appear centered on little more than self-preservation. 

Despite an ongoing record of failure, pulling out of Iraq is never an option that’s considered by the Pentagon.  The only option our leaders know is more: more troops, more weapons, more money.  As I wrote for TomDispatch back in October 2014:

pulling out is never an option, even though it would remove the “American Satan” card from the IS propaganda deck.  To pull out means to leave behind much bloodshed and many grim acts.  Harsh, I know, but is it any harsher than incessant American-led bombing, the commitment of more American “advisers” and money and weapons, and yet more American generals posturing as the conductors of Iraqi affairs?  With, of course, the usual results.

Here we are, two years later, and nothing has changed.  The war song remains the same, as discordant as ever, with a refrain as simple as it is harsh: putting out the fire with gasoline.

Post-Debate: Trump the Undisciplined

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Congratulations, Hillary!

W.J. Astore

Last night’s debate made for grim watching.  I’m a fan of neither candidate, but Hillary performed far better than Trump.  She kept her poise, she smiled, she stayed on her talking points.  She was, in a word, disciplined.  Measured.  And smart.  She admitted she was wrong about the emails, apologized, and moved on.  She projected calm.  Not surprisingly, she was well prepared and knew her stuff.

Trump was the total opposite: ill-prepared, mugging and pulling faces for the camera, angry and unsmiling, wandering from his talking points, often losing himself.  He was, in a word, undisciplined.  And Trump never admits he’s wrong, whether about the Iraq war or the birther issue or his tax returns or what have you.  Instead of calm, Trump projected anger.  Despite running for president for more than a year, he seemed ill-prepared and not in command of the narrative.

Whether any of this matters in the long run remains to be seen.  But what surprised me the most about Trump was the lack of a positive message.  Where was Reagan’s sunny optimism? Where was George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism?  Where was the hope?  Trump just seemed angry: angry at Mexicans, angry at the Chinese, angry at corporations for taking American jobs overseas, angry at Hillary for her negative ads.  (I guess “Crooked Hillary” doesn’t count as negativity.)

Can you win a presidential campaign when your primary appeal is an angry one?  Anger that is often directed at various minority groups as well as your opponent?  I suppose we’ll find out, come this November.

Trump sniffled a lot and was perhaps suffering from a cold.  As the debate dragged on, he lost steam and grew increasingly incoherent.  You could see Hillary’s confidence grow. She’s not the best debater; she has a tendency to lecture, to drone on, to lose the attention of the audience. But his dismal performance overshadowed her occasional forays into the weeds of wonkishness.

Trump, in sum, emerged the loser, and for a self-professed “winner” like Trump, that is indeed a bitter pill to swallow.

Quick Thoughts on Hillary and Trump before the Debate

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Hail Caesar!

W.J. Astore

Sorry, I have no special insight into tonight’s debate.  I’m guessing Hillary will win based on points, but that Trump will also win by being present on the same stage.  More celebrity than politician, more showman than man of substance, Trump knows how to control his own image. Hillary will command the facts; Trump will command the audience’s attention.  It’s a win-win for them but a lose-lose for America.

I had a strange dream last night.  I dreamed that Trump arrived at the debate, riding a chariot and posing as Caesar.  And the audience applauded.  I was desperate to ask a question (yes, I was in the audience, don’t ask me how), and got the chance.  I said something like this: “I was in the military for 20 years, serving my country, yet you, Donald Trump, dodged the draft during the Vietnam War.  You claim to be on the side of veterans, but you arrive here dressed as Caesar, as a conquering hero, even though you yourself never served.  Have you no sense of decency, sir?  Have you no shame?”

I swear: I rarely remember my dreams, and those that I do remember have nothing whatsoever to do with presidential politics.  In my waking hours, I don’t think of Trump as Caesar.  He’s more of a Nero, a deeply flawed narcissist who will fiddle while America burns.

Hillary raises different issues.  I keep seeing, both in print and on TV, the argument that Hillary is imperfect, secretive, compromised by special interests, a person of questionable judgment, but that we must vote for her simply because SHE’S NOT TRUMP.  Trump is so bad, such a hazard to democracy, the argument goes, that we must swallow the jagged big pill that is Hillary, no matter how painful that pill may prove, simply because the alternative is too terrible to contemplate.

It’s sad indeed that some people’s best (only?) argument for Hillary is that SHE’S NOT TRUMP. For me, I can’t get past the Democratic Party’s efforts to rig the primary process in her favor against a true populist with integrity, Bernie Sanders.  It’s Bernie, not Hillary, who should be running against Trump, but the Democratic Party establishment determined from the beginning that Hillary, not Bernie, would be its nominee.

Of course, both parties, Republican and Democrat, want to keep alternatives from us.  The shameful part of tonight’s debate is that Gary Johnson (Libertarian) and Jill Stein (Green) are excluded.  In short, there will be no “debate” tonight in any meaningful sense of that word. Instead, we will get a narrow discussion of establishment views with considerable jousting and posturing (and perhaps some mugging from Trump), generating some heat but precious little light.

Yes, I will watch the debate.  I just hope some version of my dream of Caesar’s rapturous appearance doesn’t come to pass.

The MYOB Foreign Policy

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Listen to my parents, America!

W.J. Astore

My parents taught me a lot of common sense sayings.  You’ve probably heard this one: mind your own business, or MYOB.  Most people have enough problems of their own; it’s not a good idea to compound one’s problems by messing around with other people’s lives.

What’s common sense for individuals is also common sense for nations.  Think of the USA.  We’ve got plenty of problems: crumbling infrastructure, inefficient and inadequate health care, too many people in too many prisons, social divides based on race and sex and class, drug and alcohol abuse, not enough decent-paying jobs, huge budgetary deficits, the list goes on.  Yet instead of looking inwards to address our problems, too often we look outwards and interfere in the lives of others.  How can we solve other people’s problems when we can’t solve our own?

Consider our nation’s foreign policy, which is basically driven by our military.  We have a global array of military bases, somewhere around 700.  We spend roughly $700 billion a year on national “defense” and wars, ensuring that we have “global reach, global power.”  To what end?  Our nation’s first president, George Washington, famously warned us to avoid foreign entanglements.  The nation’s great experiment in republican democracy, Washington knew, could easily be compromised by unwise alliances and costly wars.

This is not an argument for isolationism.  The USA, involved as it is in the global economy, could never be isolationist.  With all those military bases, and all those U.S. military units deployed around the world, we could never turn completely inwards, pretending as if the rest of the world didn’t exist.

No – not isolationism.  Rather a policy of MYOB.  Don’t intervene when it’s not our business.  And especially don’t intervene using the U.S. military.  Why?  Because U.S. troops are not charitable or social workers.

The U.S. military is supposed to be for national defense.  It’s not an international charity.  Even military aid is somewhat questionable.  And if you profit from it, as in weapons sales, it smacks of mercenary motives.

As a good friend of mine put it:

I have become rather isolationist myself in my old age.  The way I see it, we have the natural resources and (hopefully) the intellectual capital to be largely self-sufficient.  We should enter the international marketplace as a self-reliant vendor of goods and services, ready to trade fairly with those who are of a similar mind.  The rest can pound sand (no pun intended).  Charity begins at home, and we should know by now that our ideology, while “ideal” for America, is not deployable or even beneficial to other countries steeped in ancient cultures of a different nature.

My friend then added the following caveat:

The remaining challenge is how you protect basic human rights, where you can.  That is something I feel we have an obligation to attempt to do, but don’t know how to do so without crossing other lines.  Perhaps that is how Mother Teresa became St. Teresa of Calcutta.

That’s an excellent question.  Again, my response is that U.S. troops are not social workers.  Charity and social work is best left to people like Saint (Mother) Teresa.  Soldiers may be necessary to protect aid convoys and the like, but military intervention in the name of humanitarianism often ends in disaster, e.g. Somalia.  And of course “humanitarian” motives are often used as a cloak to disguise other, far less noble, designs.

Again, the U.S. military is never going to be a do-nothing, isolationist, military.  The USA itself will never return to isolationism.  What we need to do is to recognize our limitations, realize that other countries and peoples often don’t want our help, or that they’d be better off without our often heavy-handed approach when we do intervene.

We need, in short, to take care of our own business here in the USA, and to let other peoples and nations take care of theirs.  Listen to my parents, America: MYOB.

War as a Business Opportunity

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There’s lots of money in war (and rumors of war)

W.J. Astore

A good friend passed along an article at Forbes from a month ago with the pregnant title, “U.S. Army Fears Major War Likely Within Five Years — But Lacks The Money To Prepare.” Basically, the article argues that war is possible — even likely — within five years with Russia or North Korea or Iran, or maybe all three, but that America’s army is short of money to prepare for these wars.  This despite the fact that America spends roughly $700 billion each and every year on defense and overseas wars.

Now, the author’s agenda is quite clear, as he states at the end of his article: “Several of the Army’s equipment suppliers are contributors to my think tank and/or consulting clients.”  He’s writing an alarmist article about the probability of future wars at the same time as he’s profiting from the sales of weaponry to the army.

As General Smedley Butler, twice awarded the Medal of Honor, said: War is a racket. Wars will persist as long as people see them as a “core product,” as a business opportunity.  In capitalism, the profit motive is often amoral; greed is good, even when it feeds war. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is willing to play along.  It always sees “vulnerabilities” and always wants more money.

But back to the Forbes article with its concerns about war(s) in five years with Russia or North Korea or Iran (or all three).  For what vital national interest should America fight against Russia? North Korea?  Iran?  A few quick reminders:

#1: Don’t get involved in a land war in Asia or with Russia (Charles XII, Napoleon, and Hitler all learned that lesson the hard way).

#2: North Korea? It’s a puppet regime that can’t feed its own people.  It might prefer war to distract the people from their parlous existence.

#3: Iran?  A regional power, already contained, with a young population that’s sympathetic to America, at least to our culture of relative openness and tolerance.  If the U.S. Army thinks tackling Iran would be relatively easy, just consider all those recent “easy” wars and military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria …

Of course, the business aspect of this is selling the idea the U.S. Army isn’t prepared and therefore needs yet another new generation of expensive high-tech weaponry. It’s like convincing high-end consumers their three-year-old Audi or Lexus is obsolete so they must buy the latest model else lose face.

We see this all the time in the U.S. military.  It’s a version of planned or artificial obsolescence. Consider the Air Force.  It could easily defeat its enemies with updated versions of A-10s, F-15s, and F-16s, but instead the Pentagon plans to spend as much as $1.4 trillion on the shiny new and under-performing F-35. The Army has an enormous surplus of tanks and other armored fighting vehicles, but the call goes forth for a “new generation.” No other navy comes close to the U.S. Navy, yet the call goes out for a new generation of ships.

The Pentagon mantra is always for more and better, which often turns out to be for less and much more expensive, e.g. the F-35 fighter.

Wars are always profitable for a few, but they are ruining democracy in America.  Sure, it’s a business opportunity: one that ends in national (and moral) bankruptcy.

America the Fearful

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My dad in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Oregon, c.1937

W.J. Astore

America.  Land of the free, home of the brave.  Right?  Peter Van Buren, who spent a career at the State Department, has a great new article at TomDispatch.com that highlights the way in which America has changed since the 9/11 attacks.  In sum: too many wars, too much security and surveillance, and far too much fear.  One passage in Van Buren’s article especially resonated with me:

Her [Van Buren’s daughter] adult life has been marked by constant war, so much so that “defeating the terrorists” is little more than a set phrase she rolls her eyes at. It’s a generational thing that’s too damn normal, like Depression-era kids still saving aluminum foil and paper bags in the basement after decades of prosperity.

Van Buren’s reference to Depression-era kids: Well, that was my dad. Born in 1917, he endured the Great Depression in a fatherless family. He really wasn’t certain where his next meal was coming from. Decades later, he still saved everything: plastic bags, twist ties, newspapers, old vacuums and toasters and other appliances (good for spare parts!), scrap wood, and so on. He wasn’t a hoarder per se; he just couldn’t throw away something that he might need if the times grew grim again.

My Dad would cook and eat broccoli rabe greens, then drink the green juice from the cooking. “Puts lead in your pencil,” he’d say.  When he ate corn on the cob, there was nothing left on the cob when he was through. He stripped it bare like those crows I watched as a kid on Saturday morning cartoons.

He came of age in a time of want and later served in an armored division in World War II. My dad’s generation knew, like FDR knew, that the only thing they truly had to fear was fear itself. He became hardened to it, but the Depression indelibly marked him as well.

How is today’s generation being marked?  Compared to the Great Depression, these are times of plenty.  Few Americans are starving.  The new normal for this generation is living in fear. Being surrounded by security guards and surveillance devices. Being immersed in celebrations of “patriotism” that involve steroidal flags and deadly military weaponry. Hearing about distant wars fought largely by the children of the working classes.

Looking overseas, they see an American foreign policy defined by perpetual war and an economy driven by perpetual weapons sales. Domestically, they see penury for social programs and profligacy for the national security state.

Is it any wonder that so many millennials seem detached or disenchanted or even defeated? They sense that America has changed, that the focus has shifted, that the American dream has darkened, that America the home of the brave has become the land of the fearful.

Fear is the mind-killer, to cite Frank Herbert.  My father’s generation knew this and overcame it.  Yet today our leaders and the media seek to generate and exploit fear. America has turned to the Dark Side, giving in to anger, fear, aggression.  Just look at our two major party candidates for the presidency.

Mister, we could use a man like FDR again.

Hillary Clinton’s Deplorables and Irredeemables

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W.J. Astore

When Hillary Clinton called out half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables,” to the point where some are “irredeemable,” I shook my head at her elitism even as I was surprised by her lack of political acumen.  Her comment lumping these “deplorables” into a “basket” came at a fundraiser on September 9th, even as her podium touted the message “stronger together.”  As I wrote in a Facebook post on September 10th, “Painting half your opponent’s supporters as [potentially] irredeemable is just bad strategy.”

But it’s worse than that.  First off, Hillary should have known better.  After all, she went aggressively after Barack Obama when in 2008 he made his comment about bitter rural folk clinging to guns and religion.  (And Obama’s comment is considerably milder than Hillary’s.) By calling out Obama for his comment, Hillary was able to win that year’s primary in Pennsylvania.  Second, for a seasoned pol Hillary showed a surprising lack of discipline.  She herself prefaced her remarks with the phrase, “to just be grossly generalistic.”  Grossly generalistic?  That’s supposed to be Trump’s sphere, not Hillary’s.

But third and finally is that word, “irredeemable.”  Having been raised Catholic and having studied evangelicalism and American religion, that word instantly caught my attention. For Christians, to suggest that someone is “irredeemable” is in itself deplorable.  It’s as if you’re limiting the agency of God.  God determines who is redeemable and who isn’t.  No sinner, i.e. human, has the probity or power to do so.

All Christians know the story of the thief on the cross next to Christ as He was crucified. Christ chose to redeem that man, saying to him that “today, you will be with me in paradise.” As I type these words, an old hymn plays in my mind: “Christ, Jesus, victor.  Christ, Jesus, ruler.  Christ, Jesus, Lord and Redeemer.”  For God, no one is “irredeemable,” nor should any person make such claims, for God’s ways are past searching out.

Mark Shields on PBS put this exceptionally well this past Friday night:

You don’t [use that word, irredeemable] — America is built on redemption. People came here because things weren’t working out.

My generation, the old, oldest fart generation, OK, 13 percent of us were in favor of same-sex marriage 15 years ago, now 41 percent. On civil rights, America has changed dramatically and profoundly. We believe in redemption, not just because you’re a liberal, because you’re an American.

And that — when you write off people and blame the customer, that is really bad.

To this, David Brooks at PBS added the following:

[The word] irredeemable is what leapt out at me.

And the person who was at the Emanuel Baptist — AME Church in Charleston, they believe the guy who shot and killed their close friends was redeemable, but she thinks millions of Americans aren’t?

And that speaks and I think it plays, because there is a brittleness there. And I don’t know if there is a brittleness within. I sort of doubt it. I think she’s probably a very good person within. But there has been a brittleness to her public persona that has been ungenerous and ungracious. And it plays a little to that and why people just don’t want to latch on [to her campaign].

If Hillary loses the election in November, it may very well come back to her “grossly generalistic” comments on September 9th, when she anointed herself as the judge of who is redeemable and who isn’t.